Naturally the Maya ruins are the main reason you will want to visit Tikal, and also the most impressive sights you will see there, but it’s also a great place to spot wildlife. During our day in the park we were fortunate to see the following:
~ Blue Morpho Butterfly
~ Howler Monkeys
~ Spider Monkeys
~ Grey-Necked Water Rail
~ Black Hawk
~ Pale-Billed Woodpecker (The Largest Guatemalan Woodpecker)
~ Oscillated Turkey
~ Social Flycatcher
~ Collared Aracari Toucan
~ Crested Guan
~ Montezuma’s Oropendola
Plus several other birds that unfortunately I didn’t note! Most of these were rather hard to photograph but there are some great images of Tikal’s birds on this website if you’d like to see them.
Tikal National Park was created on 26 May 1955 and was the first protected area in Guatemala. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The park is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day of the week, 365 days a year. A fee is payable to enter (10 Q in November 2010) and is valid for one day only. Ours was included in the cost of our tour, and we hadn’t realised that this would mean that we couldn’t go back again the next morning (for a final look before our 10.00 AM departure) unless we bought another ticket. We also hadn’t realised that even with another ticket we couldn’t go back in for the sunrise, as only a limited number of special passes are issued for that and we would have had to pay for another full tour to get one, even though we had already been on one. Result: no sunrise visit – although as it turned out the following day was dull and cloudy and we would probably have been disappointed by the conditions. By the way, on entering the park we were offered a free map, which is well worth having – as well as the map itself it includes brief information about the major temples and other sights (in Spanish, English and French) and photos of some of the most commonly seen wildlife.
Access to the park is carefully controlled to protect the ruins, so it may come as a surprise that you are allowed to climb on many of them. Despite this there are many necessary regulations that you must follow, including:
~ Smoking is allowed within the park, but visitors are strongly advised to take their cigarette butts and ash back with them, it is forbidden to throw away any burning matches or cigarettes in the park.
~ You may not pay tips to any park guards, it will be considered bribing, which is considered a serious offense at the Tikal National Park.
~ Walk within the designated paths only and follow the signs, use these for orientation and stay off the restricted areas for your personal security.
~ You may climb on some of the monuments, however, some are strictly off limits.
~ Do not climb on the temples if you feel unfit and watch your step at all times, specially on wet stones and logs. You are in the park at your own risk.
~ If you climb temples and monuments, make sure you contribute to the safeguarding of its architectural features: don’t destroy the monuments.
~ When climbing temples, do not make any new trails to climb up and keep strictly on the trodden pathways and the main stairways: do not trample over the monuments.
~ Do not cut down any of the vegetation, cutting objects are strictly prohibited within park premises.
~ Do not throw any trash in the park.
~ Do not feed jungle animals.
~ Do not carve any graffiti, touch, lean or sit on any archaeological monument.
~ Do not make any rubbings of the sculptures of Tikal.
~ Do not turn over any stones or logs for your personal security and for preservation purposes.
~ Do not collect any animal, insect or plant specimen.
There are signs of habitation here from as early as the 4th century BC, but Tikal was at the height of its greatness from about 200 – 900 AD. At that time it was one of the most important cities in the region, but it fell into decline and was abandoned over a thousand years ago, possibly because changing weather patterns had led to a lack of water for agriculture in the area (Tikal has no natural water supply and the Maya relied on seasonal rainfall), or possibly simply because the population had declined and such a great city was no longer necessary or viable. After the great priests and rulers left, ordinary people would have stayed on for a while, living in much less impressive structures among the now crumbling ruins, before they too moved away and the once-great city lay empty. Forgotten for centuries, it was slowly overgrown by jungle until in 1848 it was “discovered” by Ambrosio Tut, a gum collector, who spotted the tops of the temples protruding from the surrounding expanse of green.
The National Park covers 222 square miles and within it about 10 square miles has been cleared to reveal almost 3,000 structures. Only a small percentage of these have been fully excavated by archaeologists. The busiest period of excavation was from 1956 to 1969, when the Guatemalan Government and the University of Pennsylvania formed a partnership for the study and exploration of Tikal. Their cooperation led to the excavation of 10 square miles of Central Tikal, and the creation of one of the largest excavated archaeological sites in the world. The work of exploration and discovery still continues today. Don’t be surprised to see scaffolding on one or two temples, workers excavating around some complexes, and craftsmen restoring stonework.
The experts are undecided as to how many people lived here when Tikal was at its height – estimates vary between 10,000 and 90,000 inhabitants. It’s hard to imagine now, when so many structures are still buried beneath centuries of earth and jungle growth, but your guide will certainly point out several apparent small hills that are in fact as yet uncovered temples and palaces, and in addition to these there would have been numerous less substantial dwellings where the majority of these inhabitants would have lived – dwellings that unlike the grand ceremonial buildings have not survived the ravages of time.
Most of the structures that we see today can be classified as palaces, pyramids or temples. What is meant by a palace is self-evident. The many pyramids were all built to a similar pattern, flat-topped and with stairs on all four sides. Some stand alone but others were built in pairs, facing each other on an east-west axis. The most prominent structures, and the ones that define Tikal in our imaginations, are the six huge step pyramids that have temples mounted on the top. These were numbered I-VI during the early years of excavation, and are still identified by those numbers today. We visited all of them and I describe them more fully in my Things to Do tips.
Fondest memory: I was thrilled that I managed to achieve my ambition of ascending the highest structure, Temple IV
Favorite thing: One of the glorious aspects of Tikal is it's location surrounded by thick jungle. This means there is considerable wildlife that you can actually see nearby as you wander through the ruins. The first animals I saw just inside the park entrance were a troop of spider monkeys. As we toured the park itself we saw coutimondi and numerous birds. The flora that inhabits the park is also fascinating.
Much of the contruction we see outside the acropolis is from the Late Classical Period, a time of both considerable power, competition with rival powers, and upheaveal among subordinate city states. Note the long rule of the first leader in this dynasty. Many of the main temple were built over and these rulers buried in them.
Late Classical Period
Jasaw Kaan K'awhil I (Sky Banner K'awhil) Ruled 682-734 AD; son of Nuun U Jol Chaak, father of Yik'in Kaan K'awhil and unknown successor 28?; Stelae 16 & 30, Altars 5 & 14, Temple 1/Lintels 2 & 3, Burial 116 (Temple 1)
Yik'in Kaan K'awhil (Dark Sky) Ruled 734-767 AD; son of Jasaw Kaan K'awhil I, father of Nuun Yax Ayin II; Stelae 5, 20? & 21, Altars 2, 8?, & 9, Lintel from Str. 50-52; Temple IV/Lintels 2 & 3; rock sculpture at head of Maler Causeway?; Burial in Temple IV?
Unknown Ruled 767 AD?
Nuun Yax Ayin II (First Great Crocodile) Ruled 768 AD; son of Yik'in Kaan K'awhil; Stelae 19 & 22, Altars 6 & 10
Nuun U Jol K'inich (Greated Headed Sun?) Ruled 790 AD; son of Dark Sun?; Temple III/Lintel 2
Dark Sun Ruled 820 AD; son of Nuun U Jol K'inich; Stela 24, Altar 7, Temple III/Lintel 2; Burial in Temple III?
Jewel K'awhil Ruled 849 AD?; Seibel Stella 10
Jasaw Kaan K'awhil II (Sky Banner K'awhil) Ruled 869-889 AD?; Stella 11, Waxaktun Stella 12
The history of Tikal is taken from inscriptions on tombs, stells, and other stone monuments. There is no Mayan literature as in Greece and Rome, so much remains a mystery. However, most of the reigning kings have been determined, and in some cases the birth, death, and marriage of the king is known. The dynastic periods are divided into four epochs that related to the status and stature of Tikal as a city. In Part I, I provide here the Late Pre-Classic and Early Classic Periods, from about 150 to 450 AD. During the later part of the Early Classical period, Mexicans from Teotihuacan not only imposed leadership on Tikal, but lived in neighborhoods within the city, much as immigrants live in American cities. Names in parentheses attempt to translate the given name into English. Stella and monument citations provide the source of information, and in some cases place of burial.
Late Pre-Classic Period
Yax Eb' Xook (First Step Shark?) Ruled 150 A.D.; mentioned on numerous monuments in Tikal
Jaguar Paw (Great Fire Claw) Ruled 275 A.D. Shown on Stella 29 in Sky Position
Early Classic Period
Foliated Ajaw Ruled 292; Stella 29
Animal Headress (wife is "lady skull") Ruled 295 AD; El Encanto Stella 1
Siyaj Kaan K'awhil I (Sky Born Ancestor God) Son of Animal Headress and Lady Skull, Ruled 300 AD; El Encanto Stella I, and the Dynastic Pot.
Lady Une B'alam (Lady Jaguar Tail, or Lady Baby Jaguar) Ruled 317 AD; Stelae 26 & 31, and on shard on Problematic Deposit PNT-21
Muwan Jol (Hawk Head, Bird Skull, Feather Skull) Ruled 355 AD?; the Dynastic Pot
Chak Tok Ich'aak I(Great Jaguar Paw I) Ruled 375 AD?; Son of Lady B'alam and Muwan Jol, Stella 39?, Burial 22?
Nuun Yax Ayin I (First Great Crocodile) Ruled 400 AD?; Son of ruler of Teotihuacan, Stelae 4 & 18, Burial 10
Siyaj Kaan K'awhil II Ruled 411-448 AD; Son of Nuun Yax Ayin I, Stelae 1, 2, 28? and 31, Burial 48
Mexican influence of Teotihuacan on Tikal came earlier and left earlier than for other Mayan cities in the Peten, and so transition to the Middle Classical period began as Tikal enters a rennaissance, and presummably commercial leadership. Bear in mind that all of this understanding is from the markings on the buildings, stelae, pottery, and other durables unearthed. There is no classic literature explaining the history of the Maya at Tikal, as there is for Greece and Rome. Note the long rule of the first leader, who was a great-grandson of a ruler at Teotihuacan, and the continued influence through his son and grandchildren as successors.
Middle Classic Period
K'an Chitam (Yellow Peccary) Ruled beginning in 458 AD; son of Siyaj Kaan K'awhil II, brother of Rio Azul ruler
Chak Tok Ich'aak II (Great Jaguar Paw) Ruled 508 AD; son of K'an Chitam
Lady Kalomte' (Woman of Tikal) Ruled 511 AD; daughter of Chak Tok Ich'aak II, possible co-ruler with Kalomte' B'alam (who was also a brother of Wak Kaan K'awhil with a different father?) Stelae 6, 12, & 23.
Kalomte' B'alam (Jaguar Ruler, Curl Head) Ruled 515 AD, brother of Wak Kaan K'awhil, Stelae 10, 12 & 25?
Unknown (Bird Claw, Animal Skull) Ruled 530 AD?; Stelae 25? and 8?
Wak Kaan K'awhil (Stood-up Sky Ancestor, Double Bird) Ruled 537 AD?; son of Chak Tok Ich'aak II, Stella 17
E Te' (Animal Skull, Lizard Head) Ruled 562 AD; may have same mother as Wak Kaan K'awhil but different father.
Unknown 23 successor is unknown but theorized to be there
Unknown 24 successor is unknown but theorized to be there
Nuun U Jol Chaak (Great His Head Rain God) Ruled 657; Son of E Te'?, Father of Jaswa Kaan K'awhil I, Temple 1/Lintel 3, MT 25, MT 44, and numerous monuments at Dos Pilas and Palenque
Favorite thing: Tikal construction represented a high point for the Mayan world generally, but it was by no means the sole power broker in the region. In fact, it was defeated and payed homage to Caracol, which had become dominant in terms of trade. Tikal was also sacked by Dos Pilos, a Mayan army that had killed the Tikal leader. Despite this, Tikal reign was a long one, and the city held alliances with many other Mayan cities, such as three that I have visited in the region, El Ceibal, Yaxchilan, and Palenque. Each of these Mayan cities contributed unique architectural styles worthy of being visited in their own right for sure, but Tikal's influence was very broad, and through its extensive trade networks, Tikal also received and modified it's art. In the later classic periods, for example the influence of art from the Valley of Mexico is very apparent. Most of this influence is seen on ceramic vessels and the like, rather than on the great architectural structures on visits at Tikal.
Favorite thing: You may want to consider getting to Tikal very early in the morning and experience dawn in Tikal. If you are not very lucky the mist won´t let you see much of the ruins but you can still listen to the hauling monkeys, they start hauling a few minutes before the sun rises, it's worth it!
The Visitor's Centre (located just before you enter the large car/tour bus park in front of the three hotels in Tikal National Park) is worth a visit if you get the chance. In addition to the usual small shops selling mementos of Tikal, there is a very large model depicting what Tikal would look like if all the vegetation were cleared away from the ~3000 structures located here.
The first photo shows the view generally looking into Tikal as you would see it when entering through the main gate where you must either buy or show your entrance ticket for the day (cost 50 Quetzales or US$6.50 per person). We entered via the small out of the way Complex Q and R temples in the right foreground before turning left onto the 'causeway' leading to the main area of Temples in the middle (normally you would take the more direct route straight into that area). Way over to the left side is the large Temple V which is fully excavated, while the smaller one to it's right (Temple VI) is actually still totally covered in jungle growth. Over at the top right is the tallest building at Tikal, Temple IV at the far end of the Park. The main area of temples in the middle of the photo includes Temple I, the complex of North Acropolis buildings and the smaller Temple II while Temple III towers almost in a straight line from there leading toward Temple IV.
Fondest memory: The second photo shows the view from the other end of the Park, with the Mundo Perdido temple in the foreground (the one we climbed for the sunset views) and Temple IV just out of the picture to the left. This angle gives a better view of the main tourist area of Tikal, starting with Temple III all by itself at the left side and then moving right to the short Temple II and the Acropolis buildings between it and Temple I (with it's large dark 'comb' on top).
We spent our last week in Belize very close to the Guatemalan border, at a little place about half-way between San Ignacio and the border village of Benque Viejo Del Carmen, as shown on the Map. Since the Mayan ruins at Tikal are so close, we had to make the most of this chance to slip over for a quick one-night visit to see this World Heritage Site for ourselves. Once over the border, the road is unpaved for the first 30-miles or so, but it was not too rough and it was also dry. The rest of the road was clear sailing straight into the National Park, located in this remote northeast corner of Guatemala.
A couple of other interesting things are visible on the the map:
1) the carved stone records at Tikal say they conquered the nearby town of Uaxactun in 378 AD (just outside the northern boundary of the park) and,
2) the large Mayan empire centred in Caracol (at the bottom of Belize in the green National Park area) conquered Tikal in 562 AD, resulting in their domination for 135 years before Tikal began to rebound.
Favorite thing: Before you go, James Michner's Caribbean is a good book to read to get some insight into the Mayan culture. At least the first couple of chapters (it's a long book). It gave me a basis for understanding the whirlwind tour of Tikal and the other Mayan sites in Belize.
In my opinion, it's false economy to try to do Tikal without at least a half day guided tour. We came on a tour from Belize, and Walter was our guide. He got on the bus at the border - it is required that the guides be from Guatemala
He was excellent - he not only knew the information about all the various temples and sites and could interpret the writings and calender, but he had a notebook with the location of various artifacts which were in museums around the world. Also he could figure out how to avoid all the other tour groups in the area so that we could see the details of the temples without hordes of other folks there
Fondest memory: Walter would stop to allow people to climb various pyramids and take pictures, and he would also pause and allow me to catch up so I could hear the information he was giving.
We tipped him, and he was worth it.
Favorite thing: These are the steps that you will have to climb to get to the top.They were well built and not too steep.They have not excavated this temple yet so there's not much to see around the base but the view from the top is cool.
Favorite thing: Excavations are still going on at Tikal. Two days before I arrived there was a discovery of a grave in behind the Plaza of the Seven Temples. They had not figured out who the person may have been yet as the discovery was so new. It was cool that they let us see such a recent find.